Hand holding nacho cheese doritos chip from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.

I can still remember the day when I fell in love with American snack foods. It was the summer of 1988. I was with my American buddies, a crew of ‘military brats’ whose parents were stationed with the U.S. Army in my German city. We were wrapping up our skateboarding session at a halfpipe in the countryside, everyone stuffing their knee pads and helmets into their backpacks.

That’s when my buddy Juan produced a bag of chips and passed it around. As the bag approached, I could read the words Doritos and Tortilla Chips in big, bold letters on the red, white, and blue packaging. When it was my turn, I pulled out a handful of orange-colored, triangular chips and casually popped one in my mouth.

Next thing I remember, my head exploded!

What on Earth was this flavor?! Nothing in my 14 years of growing up as a kid in Germany could have prepared me for what I was tasting at this moment!

First of all, these weren’t the potato chips and pretzels that had dominated my culinary upbringing. No, these chips were made from toasted corn marked by a distinct crunch and texture. And second, the flavors hit the palate with a slightly smoky and sweet aroma that was unlike anything I had ever tasted before. Truly mind-boggling stuff!

NEXT-LEVEL AMERICAN SNACK FOODS

Boy holding skateboard from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.
First taste: The author discovering skateboarding for the first time in Wiesbaden, Germany, 1988.

The flavor was so mind-boggling because these corn chips were covered in a thick layer of cheese-flavored dust that stuck to your fingers and produced an intense taste sensation. Something genuinely cheese-like and entirely unseen in any German snack at the time.

To my American friends, this kind of cheese was nacho cheese, specifically. But I lacked any point of reference whatsoever in my German experience. This blend of cheese dust, and the entire concept of triangle-shaped toasted corn chips were so alien to me, they might as well have arrived from a different planet.

But wow, did I love it! I had my whole entire world rocked by these first bites of Nacho Cheese Doritos. And I instantly knew that I wanted to taste more of these strange and wonderful American snack foods.

A TASTE OF AMERICA

Ollie to tail on skateboard from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.
In search of new flavors: The author skating a ramp in the French countryside, Leucate Plage Skate Camp, 1990.

And I did! Over the course of this magical summer in 1988, my American buddies introduced me to the full gambit of American snack foods. We would go skateboarding all over town, and later they would invite me into their homes. I saw military housing apartments and civilian homes that were usually off-limits to Germans. Humble recreations of life in the United States with their gigantic fridges and garbage disposals in the sink. Smells of potpourri air freshener. NTSC video recorders and LaserDisc players hooked up to ginormous televisions.

Plus, so much entertainment and pop culture. American versions of the Nintendo Entertainment System packed with games unavailable in German retail, like Jackal and Rush’n Attack and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game. The latest VHS skateboard videos mail-ordered from California Cheap Skates, where U.S. passport holders could buy a complete skateboard for $99.99, a fraction of the cost in German skate shops. And of course, mind-blowing American snack foods that no German supermarket carried, straight from the AAFES Exchange store, or PX, where only American service members and authorized civilians could shop.

In celebration of these memories and to give thanks to my skate crew of military brats from back in the day, here’s my ranked list of the The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods. Best enjoyed with a can of Welch’s Grape soda. Here it is!

1. Doritos | Nacho Cheese Flavor

Bag of chips Doritos Nacho Cheese from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.

Nacho Cheese Doritos are triangle-shaped icons among American snack foods. They single-handedly launched my ongoing love for US snack foods and melted my brain as a German teenager with their intense cheese flavor, delivered through the magic of enzyme-enriched orange dust, and their satisfying fried corn crunch.

Allegedly, Doritos were invented at Disneyland and named after the Spanish word ‘dorado’ for fried and golden things. That’s perfect. Because in my humble opinion, Nacho Cheese Doritos are still the gold standard of what any snack of the chip lineage can aspire to achieve.

A staple since Frito-Lay popped them onto the market in 1972, Nacho Cheese Doritos now come in countless versions. These include Flamin’ Hot flavor, plus the recently relaunched Doritos 3D Crunch iteration from the 1990s. Not to forget Doritos taco shells in an official collab with Taco Bell (now that’s how you innovate, people!). But even more than 20 years after I took that first bite, the original Nacho Cheese version will always be my preferred ticket to a land of flavors.

2. Crunch’n Munch Popcorn | Caramel & Peanuts

Package of Crunch’n Munch popcorn and peanuts in caramel flavor from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.

Here’s another snack food concept that melted my 14-year-old brain at the time. Growing up in Germany, popcorn was either sweet or salty. But never both at the same time! So when Crunch’n Munch Caramel & Peanuts Popcorn entered my life, it was a game changer.

There’s something magical about the combination of pillowy popcorn with buttery caramel and the salty crunch of peanuts. Something that struck me as super advanced and futuristic as a teenager, blissfully unaware that the snack had been introduced as early as 1966 by the Franklin Nut Company. Well, I guess German snack food had a lot of catching up to do in the 1980s, and I’m not even sure whether they sell Crunch’n Munch over there today? I sure hope so!

3. COMBOS Baked Snacks | Pizza Flavor

Bag of Combos Backed Snacks in Pizza Flavor from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.

Leave it to American ingenuity to elevate something like the humble pretzel into a Space Age snack. In Germany, snack manufacturers have mostly been content to produce the perfect pretzel modeled on Bavarian beer house snacks, with a signature crunch and saltiness. But when I discovered COMBOS, I knew we definitely weren’t in good old Bavaria anymore.

Believe it or not, but these tube-shaped pretzel snacks injected with pizza-flavored filling are made in a high-tech process, based on a patent registered in the 1970s. According to the Mars Wrigley website, a “dedicated group of R&D, Engineering and Manufacturing associates each with extensive experience in combining great food flavors helped mold the patent into the COMBOS Baked Snacks.” COMBOS also come in tortilla and cracker variations with a number of fillings, but I’ll never forget how I marveled at the three-dimensional construction of the pizza pretzel version back in 1988. The next level of snack engineering for sure!

4. Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup | Chicken Flavor

Package of Maruchan Instant Noodle Soup in Chicken flavor from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.

I know, I know… Instant ramen noodle soup is not an American snack food but goes back to the pioneering efforts of Taiwanese-Japanese inventor Momofuko Ando back in 1958. But try telling that to my 14-year-old self, who discovered the joy of slurping chicken-flavored ramen noodles at my American buddy Scott’s house back in the late 1980s. In my mind, ramen noodles were yet another magical taste of America that German grocery stores had yet to put on their shelves (German company Maggi actually released a version of ramen called ‘Asia Nudel Snack’ in the 1990s, watch the commercial).

What made my first ramen experience distinctly American, though, is the way in which Scott’s mom would cook ramen noodles for us: Served without any broth whatsoever! That’s right, the chicken ramen would arrive at the table steaming hot, sans any trace of broth, but deliciously perfumed by subtle chicken flavor surrounding the soft noodles.

For the longest time, I believed that ditching the broth was how you were supposed to enjoy ramen! Only years later did I experience genuine Japanese ramen soup in all its glory at a well-known noodle bar in New York City in the early aughts (actually named in tribute to the inventor of instant ramen). But I guess that this all-American experience set the stage for appreciating the real thing when I was ready, just like those hard-shell taco kits in the 1980s started my passion for Mexican food.

5. Bugles | Nacho Cheese Flavor

Bag of Bugles in Nacho Cheese flavor from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.

The year 1966 not only marked the birth of Vans shoes and Crunch’n Munch popcorn, but also this nifty, cone-shaped snack: Nacho Cheese Bugles. Developed by food engineer Verne E. Weiss in Minnesota, Bugles were released by General Mills in 1966 alongside two more novelty snacks, namely Whistles and Daisies. Well, more than 50 years later, Bugles are the only snack still standing. And not only that: Bugles are available worldwide in places like South Korea, Poland, France and Canada.

Back in 1988, nobody in Germany had heard of Bugles. So imagine my delight when my American friends shared a whole box with me (at least I believe they came in a box at the time, but that might be some kind of Mandela Effect misremembering). Here’s a bit of random trivia: Bugles are nicknamed ‘America’s Finger Hat’ because kids would stick them on the tips of their fingers, like nacho cheese-fingernailed mini versions of Freddie Krueger. I always enjoyed the orange dusting these Bugles left on my hands, much like Nacho Cheese Doritos and remember them fondly as part of my all-time Top 5 American snack foods.

Nowadays, the nacho cheese version of Bugles can be hard to track down. They’re rare at regular grocery stores but convenience stores and gas stations usually have them. While they used to be manufactured at the same factory in West Chicago, Illinois, all the way until 2017, you may notice that Bugles are made by two manufacturers now: General Mills (fried in coconut oil) and Tom’s Snacks (fried in vegetable oil). If you find a bag of nacho cheese Bugles, don’t hesitate to snatch one up and send it to our office here at Illuminated Paper!

TASTE OF A DIFFERENT LIFE

The author depicted in Santa Monica, California, in 1993 from article The 5 Most Iconic American Snack Foods by Dirk Vogel for Illuminated Paper Magazine.
First visit to the land of American snack foods: The author in Santa Monica, California, 1993.

So there you have it, my Top 5 American snack foods. I just want to end this article by pointing out how much of a paradigm shift these were in my teenage years in the 1980s. Because coming from a land where every single snack food tasted like paprika at the time – aside from crackers and pretzels, which were seasoned with salt – my American friends opened up a new world of experiences to me.

With their generosity and hospitality, they provided me with a taste of a different life. As our gang of skate rats went out in search of new places to skateboard and new snack flavors to sample, I was set on a new path. A path beyond my small town in Germany. A new path out into a bigger world.

Today I realize that my life could have turned out a billion different ways had it not been for those American kids (and their moms, who always put out an extra plate for me at the dinner table in their American homes away from home). And I am forever thankful for the experience.

That summer of 1988, I fell in love with American snack foods and American culture as a whole. My English language skills grew alongside my hunger for snack experiences and passion for skateboarding. A few years later, the same path would lead to a degree in American Studies, a career in journalism, and ultimately moving to the United States and starting a family here.

Maybe none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for that first bite of Nacho Cheese Doritos out by the halfpipe in the German countryside. Who knows? What I do know is that you have not experienced America unless you’ve tasted at least some of the iconic snack foods on this list. Try some today and thanks for reading!